Members of Toronto’s Latino community are nearly seven times more likely to contract COVID-19 than their white counterparts, according to new data from Toronto Public Health.
They’re also four times as likely to require hospitalization to treat the disease — a statistic that could have huge implications as ICUs fill and hospitals are stretched to capacity.
“It’s like if it was first-class citizens and second-class citizens,” said Enzo Moreno, director of the Centro Cultural Latinoamericano Toronto.
The Centro Cultural is a community hub in Little Jamaica, a gathering place for a cross-section of low-income, racialized populations, many of whom are immigrants. It’s taken on an important role in supporting a community, including hosting food banks for residents.
Still, Moreno said there’s “a sense of sadness, of … not being supported totally.”
Toronto’s Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vinita Dubey said there are a number of reasons why Latin Americans — as with other racialized groups — could be experiencing disproportionate impacts from COVID-19.
It could be stress from racism and discrimination, pre-existing health disparities linked to social and economic factors, challenges accessing health care and social services, or an inability to follow public health guidelines because they are essential workers or living in overly crowded homes.
“Everything has to do with social conditions,” said Moreno.
He said many Latin Americans rent rooms in homes because “rent prices have skyrocketed,” so they’re sharing kitchens and bathrooms with many other people. Others have been further marginalized by job loss.
“Social distancing isn’t existent,” he said.
So, despite making up just three per cent of the city’s population, Latin Americans represent eight per cent of the city’s caseload.
“We’ve seen every chapter of this pandemic that people who are racialized are bearing the brunt and this new data showcases the importance for us to a) collect race-based data and b) act on it,” said Dr. Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and health justice activist.
“COVID-19 is not an equal opportunity virus.”
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Toronto Public Health has been collecting data on the pandemic and its effect on various communities for more than a year.
But acting on it is a work in progress — particularly as the provincial vaccine rollout seeks to prioritize people, like Moreno, who live in hot-spot zones.
Earlier this week, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s top doctor, said hot-spot vaccination is key to flattening the third wave.
But while the province touted mobile clinics as an efficient way to deliver vaccines to hot-spot neighbourhoods, the city has said they’re meant to serve a specialized role, with the bulk of vaccinations being done through mass clinics, as well clinics run by pharmacies and health-care providers.
Navigating that system can be confusing before adding a language barrier.
“I think the government has been trying,” Moreno said, but it’s been a struggle to get correct information, clearly communicated to the people who need it urgently.
That’s an issue Ruben Rodriguez has been working to address.
Rodriguez, who is the lead for the COVID-19 assessment centre at Humber River Hospital, is particularly attuned to health-care access issues for the Latino new immigrant community, because he himself is Latino and was once a newcomer. He emigrated from Cuba nearly two decades ago.
“I’m aware of the privilege that has come with my development as a professional in Canada,” he said, “but it makes me think about the people who are starting their life in Canada and all those privileges they don’t have.”
The key, he said, is using community resources that people trust, resources like Centro Cultural.
The city is trying, said Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of Toronto’s board of health.
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The city has earmarked more money to help organizations serving seniors redeploy staff to focus on assisting people who don’t have the understanding needed to book an appointment.
It’s offering a dial-in translator service, in addition to online resources in several languages, including Spanish. And it has a whiteboard at the Toronto Congress Centre Mass Immunization Clinic listing which languages are spoken by staff.
“This is the vaccine campaign of our lifetime,” said Cressy. “We need to make sure it erases every conceivable barrier to ensure that everybody in every language in every community in every corner of our city can access the vaccine.”
Rodriguez said more needs to be done:
“If we don’t advocate for those who are in a position of not having the privilege of understanding their surroundings then we’re failing them.”
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